Swing Lo Magellan
By Conrad Amenta | 26 July 2012
Dirty Projectors are described as far more contentious animals than they have any business being. It’s embarrassing and predictable, really, that this band that sits at the locus of 1970s technicality and art-house aesthetics should be so roundly and repeatedly pigeonholed as “difficult.” When I read the reviews, I see a desire for an easier brand of experimentation, for linear tracework from populist rock and punk to this. (Admittedly, they didn’t do themselves any favors by interpreting Black Flag. They just sustained the easy contrast.) So reviewing Dirty Projectors is a weird endeavor. It’s us, the audience, that seems bent on duct taping a freak flag in their hand, and it’s more tempting to review that tendency than this band’s generally interesting and actually sort of pleasant output.
What makes reviews of Swing Lo Magellan interesting is that, like Bitte Orca (2009) before it, it’s being interpreted as “surprisingly” straightforward—though it can only be surprising in the context of our understanding of Dirty Projectors as weird and experimental. Dirty Projectors are confounding expectations they seem to have had no hand in creating. Like Björk or David Byrne, with whom Dirty Projectors have performed, this is a band that seems better described as a marriage of idiosyncratic vocals and pop sensibilities. While Longstreth and company still occasionally cram fifty transitions into every four-minute ditty, that’s about as far as this band gets into being truly abstract. It just seems strange to me that abrasive volume and meta-arrangements have been so incorporated into the mainstream that HEALTH is doing a Max Payne soundtrack and our frame of reference for Dirty Projectors is still an outdated form of experimental music.
So, now that I’ve spent two full paragraphs invoking something just to suggest we shouldn’t invoke it, I’ll get to my point: if we ignore the narrative around this band and just look at their songwriting decisions, what’s there to like and what’s there to frustrate have remained pretty static. The vocals are still impressive displays of phonetic texture, still supplied by an all-female vocal cast and Longstreth’s elastic performativity. A borderline a cappella number like “Gun Has No Trigger” will foreground it like never before, but the molecules of that particular strand remain. There are still occasional phrases of minimalist pop, like “Impregnable Question,” with simple piano strikes, and the album still has instances of percussive dabbling—handclaps, rim taps, and counterintuitive drum programming—such as on album highlight “About to Die.”
And here also is the band’s blinkered approach to cul-de-sac writing. When the band plays rock music, as it does on “Offspring Are Blank” or “Maybe That Was It,” it does so not as payoff but as reference, just as it did on Bitte Orca’s title track. The listener is not allowed to bask in it. Folk song touchstones are similarly stretched and tortured on “Unto Caesar,” never allowed to rest too long before being cattle herded into the next arrangement. Similarly, Swing Lo Magellan offers only occasional escape from Longstreth’s overwrought themes. “Gun Has No Trigger,” which shines a brighter spotlight on his lyrics than ever before, reaches for depth while pointing an accusatory finger at a rhetorical you: “You’d see a million colors if you really looked,” and “If you had looked / You might reconsider / Or just maybe / You already have.” Like the neutered rock choruses here, the band seems hell bent on not reaching a logical punch line, a payout, a resolution. I’m all for vacillation, but if that’s what you want to do then being a rock band who makes continuous pop references rather than an honest-to-god experimental band seems like a strange choice.
Or maybe the band should embrace accessibility once and for all. In places, the band seems like it wants to run headlong towards it. Numbers like “Dance for You” and “Impregnable Question” are constantly counterposed with beautiful but diddling songs like “Unto Caesar,” which offer fortune cookie wisdom and even acknowledge it, such as when Coffman responds with “Uhh, that doesn’t make any sense, what you just said.” It’s cute, sure, but a strange gesture of pointlessness. Longstreth doesn’t seem all that interested in telling a story, which is fine, but it’s keeping the band from using this pop format more effectively.
Like Bitte Orca placed “The Stillness is the Move,” and specifically Amber Coffman’s virtuoso ear for melody, at the center of Longstreth’s thorny indulgence, “The Socialites” and “Just From Chevron” are the sweet, simple heart in Swing Lo Magellan’s iron chest. The lyrics seems to imply identification, affinity, empathy, as a path getting around to criticism. Coffman is expressing admiration from afar, in narrative form. This is in direct contrast with Longstreth’s tendency to distance himself from his subject, to address that nebulous “you” with objective eyes. It’s a subtle but central illustration of why we continue to talk about Dirty Projectors as confrontational, internal, and unforgiving when what they sound like to me is a pop band with confused lyrics and muddled arrangements—except when Coffman is singing.
The obvious thing that shouldn’t need to be said but here it is anyways is that the band is incredibly talented, and everything they put out is jammed with enough wunderkind recital to make it worth checking out. Dirty Projectors unfortunately continue to be evaluated in the context of their idealized form: their promise and their push against the boundaries or their pop music chops. Maybe in the context of Bon Iver winning a Grammy this is a boundary pushing band, but not as part of the entire music spectrum. I think they have it in them to write great pop music or truly important experimental music, but Dirty Projectors have to decide where they want to end up before they start.